It’s 1954 and, as the audience arrives for the opening night of Macbeth, the Coliseum staff are slightly on edge. The last time the ‘Scottish play’ was staged in the building one of the cast suffered a fatal accident. Fingers are crossed that all will go well tonight.
The good news is that we’re all spared yet another Shakespeare production, unfortunately that’s due to the Front of House Manager Mr Fitch being found dead just moments before curtain-up.
And so, the scene is set for a murder mystery with plenty of twists and turns. This time though, the well-established format goes all interactive. Oldham Coliseum have teamed up with Front Room Productions to take us online with a show that promises to be “part theatre, part film and part video game”.
It’s not as over-facing as it sounds, in fact it’s all pretty easy to follow. Initially, there’s a series of filmed sequences to introduce the story and characters, during which you have a choice over where to go, who to speak to, and what to talk about. For the second half, there’s an opportunity to explore a map of the theatre, clicking and collecting clues from both front of house and backstage. Finally, when you’re ready, it’s time to have a go at guessing the identity of the murderer.
For fans of whodunnits, there’s plenty to enjoy, with clues galore and five talkative suspects, each generously endowed with motive and opportunity. The Coliseum is a simmering cauldron of a crime scene – full of thwarted ambition, secret passions, scandal, injustice, a dash of blackmail and a scattering of suspicious correspondence. A rodent infestation means the theatre is awash with supplies of Folsom’s Rat Poison (a product happy to boast on the box that “it’s undetectable”!). It’s enough to put any amateur detective’s little grey cells in a spin.
The production team conjure up a bygone era of usherettes, martinis, hostess trollies and a touch of trouble at t’mill, and Grant Archer’s camera lens gives it a dreamy warm glow. Everything feels carefully curated, with a forensic attention to detail. A copy of the Oldham Daily frames the action, and the news stories splashed across its front page link to the tale that unfolds. Designer Celia Perkins, elegantly gift-wraps the Coliseum in the style of the period and there is so much to delight the eyes – a dressing room strewn with opening night bouquets, knitted doilies dripping from the shelves of the usherette’s shop, and a stuffed rooster jostling for attention with a fake sliced bloomer amongst the jumbled contents of the prop store.
Perkins dresses the cast in the stylishly smart attire of the time, and they skillfully deliver the lively script – all just the right side of pastiche, while resisting the temptation to slide into farce. As well-known actress Grace Marple, Victoria Brazier gets to enjoy herself, all brittle glamour and ‘posh’ accent. While Riana Duce shines as sweet natured usherette Shirley, a long-held grudge lurking just beneath the surface of her slightly ditzy persona.
There’s no mystery though as to the real star of the show. Despite being well into its second century and without a word of dialogue, the Coliseum itself revels in its moment in the spotlight. It’s hard not to see the production as an affectionate embrace of the theatrical world, with all its traditions, habits, and quirks. Shirley lights up as she describes her love of a night at the theatre, “the smell of the new programmes, the ice creams in their tiny little pots, everyone laughing or crying, clapping together”. As characters take their seats in the stalls, I think of all the times I’ve been there too, chatting away to friends and waiting for the house lights to go down. Has it really been so long?
Poirot needn’t lose any sleep. After an entertaining hour rooting around the theatre for clues, I failed to identify the murderer. My shortcomings as a sleuth seem irrelevant on this occasion though. It’s been my first visit to Oldham in over a year and, even if it was only virtually, it felt wonderful to wander around the Coliseum again.
Performance watched on 10 April 2021.
Runs from Friday 9 April 2021 – Sunday 25 April 2021. Tickets give access to watch for 48-hours from midnight on the date booked for.
Images by Joel Chester Fildes.